Father Wound #4: The Absent Dad
Woody Allen once quipped, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” For all of the ways that we fathers can parent our children well (or poorly), I think that being a father operates on a similar pattern. The choices we make as fathers matter tremendously. But ask some of the 24 million kids who are growing up in homes without dads, and they’d probably tell you, “I just wish dad would show up.”
The Absent Dad doesn’t usually mean to tell his kids they don’t matter. But kids growing up without their father generally interpret the absence of their dad as a personal rejection. They consistently think that they weren’t important enough or good enough. They wonder how they might have acted differently to make Dad stay. Counselors say this often manifests itself in a background sadness, a sort of “life soundtrack” that children live with in good times as well as bad. Even when relationships are thriving, there is a nagging suspicion that the other shoe is bound to drop eventually, and all of the goodness will soon disappear.
Often, this sadness and fear starts to express itself as anger. Many fatherless boys, for instance, in the absence of a father figure who could exemplify real masculinity, turn to some other way to try and prove their masculinity—rebellion, athletic or sexual prowess, sometimes even violence or gang activity. In the absence of an authentic vision of masculinity—one defined by intimacy as well as toughness—many young men gravitate toward aggressive heroes and aggressive lifestyles. Their dads never got on the ground and wrestled with them and showed them what strength under control looked like, what strength harnessed to protect and bless looked like. So they only learned to express their strength and masculinity through the domination of others.
The Absent Father wound doesn’t just produce aggressive kids, though. It can also produce really “productive” idolaters. I know of many guys who grew up without a father figure that became over-achievers, trying to be the man their father never was. They may not say this overtly, but it often seems that they are trying to prove themselves so that they can get from others the affirmation they never got from their fathers. From the outside, they are enormously successful. But inside, they just can’t seem to get enough affirmation to fill the void. They will be the first ones to tell you how hollow their successes feel.
Girls with absentee fathers can manifest their struggles in similar ways. Sometimes they struggle to develop respect for themselves or confidence in their careers. (Or, conversely, like the men I just mentioned, they’ll pour themselves too much into the success of their careers.) Sometimes, in the absence of a father’s love, they crave the attention and care from a man, and they become willing to do anything to get it. The promise of romance, for many of these young women, is a vain attempt to replace a love they never knew. But with a little time and perspective, these women will be the first ones to tell you how hollow their relationships feel.
The wound of the Absent Dad says, “You can’t rely on anyone. Sooner or later, this will all come crashing down.” But can I repeat myself here? Your father is not the Heavenly Father. He says to us in Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave you or abandon you” (CSB). Never. That word, in Greek, has a very specific meaning. It means … never!
With Jesus, we don’t just have an empty promise. We have a history to demonstrate God’s never-ending love. Jesus wouldn’t leave us when we had spurned him and walked away. He wouldn’t leave us even when we made our bed in hell. Far from being the kind of dad who would walk out on us to pursue a better option, Jesus had a better option, but he refused to be happy until we had returned home. Far from using or abusing us for his own pleasure, he allowed himself to be tortured for us so that we could have eternal life. As we pounded nails into his wrist, all Jesus could pray was, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
If Jesus did not abandon us at the moment we were literally killing him, what then could possibly separate us from him? He died for us when we were his enemies. Of course he will be true to us now that we are his children! He will never leave us or forsake us.
God—and God alone—is the Heavenly Father you’ve always craved. And that’s good news for all of us, whether our dads were great or horrid. You see, even if you had a good dad, at some point he disappoints you and fails you. And eventually, even the best dads die, leaving a gaping hole in your heart you don’t know how to fill.
But your Heavenly Father isn’t like that. He is, as Isaiah says, the “Everlasting Father” (Isaiah 9:6). The one deficit that all of our dads share—their mortality—has never been a problem for God. He never disappoints, never forsakes, never leaves, never dies. Here is the Father your heart has always craved.